Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ is one of the most heart-wrenchingly honest depictions of Blackness in a racist society I have ever read. Published in 1970, it no doubt played a part in Morrison’s being awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. Set in 1940s America, it follows the story of a Black eleven-year-old named Pecola and her family. Pecola is a tragic hero, and the reader is made to strongly sympathise with her throughout the novel.
From the foreword, the reader is made to understand that The Bluest Eye is a very deliberate novel. Morrison makes her intentions and reasoning for some of the choices she makes in her characterisation and use of language extremely clear, and the foreword usefully sets the tone for the rest of the novel. The foreword also makes this a particularly helpful resource for people wanting to challenge their own ideas surrounding race and confront their biases, as it makes the author’s hopes for what one should take from the book explicit.
The novel is mainly an exploration of the harm done to Black Americans by slavery and its long-lasting effects as well as the continuing cultural hatred of Black people in America. The main metaphor used to propel this theme is Pecola’s wish for blue eyes, which perfectly consolidates the main issues facing her into one easily digestible idea. Pecola is perpetually abused and neglected by her family and community, but the novel does not encourage the reader to simply hate her abusers and keep reading; rather, it encourages one to question why this abuse occurs. It is made obvious that those perpetuating pain and abuse onto Pecola are facing their own internal pain. Morrison uses different characters to show differing ways of coping with self-hatred. Where Pecola’s parents externalise their pain and cause more of it in the process, Pecola turns inwards, becoming invisible and consumed by her self-hatred.
All the characters are hurting in ‘The Bluest Eye’, and their pain is caused by a feeling of self-loathing that is pushed onto Black Americans through the media and general culture. Pecola worships the child actress Shirley Temple because she sees Temple as being truly loved by society and the people in her life in a way she has never experienced. Her desire for blue eyes is not in any way vapid. It is a desire to be loved and accepted, and to feel beautiful: with ‘the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty’.
Morrison’s stylistic choices for the novel are incredibly compelling. Firstly, the novel is narrated by multiple narrators, often switching narrator and time and relying on the reader to intuit where in the plot they are. Although this may sound confusing, Morrison does it exceptionally well and instead it works to keep the reader immersed in the world of the novel. The writing style is also expert, with beautiful prose, word choice and stunning metaphors throughout. Alongside this, there is realistic, down to earth dialogue often using colloquialisms and African-American Vernacular English. All in all, Morrison’s novel is not only beautifully symbolic and interesting, but also simply beautiful to read.
I would highly recommend The Bluest Eye to anyone, but particularly to those who feel open to educating themselves on the issues facing Black Americans to this day. Although it was written almost 60 years ago, it remains relevant, especially considering the very clear colourism of most mainstream media. Some plot points are shocking and disturbing, but for those who can withstand them, I believe the discomfort is necessary to promote thinking surrounding the novel. The Bluest Eye is a novel I don’t believe I will ever forget.
Image: Samantha Fulton